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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
One of the year’s most stirring performances came from Ben Mendelsohn, whose Danny Rayburn — the bad seed of a prominent Florida Keys family — in Netflix’s Bloodline has landed him a nomination for best supporting actor in a drama series. The 46-year-old Aussie, who broke out in the 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom and recently was cast in the Star Wars spinoff film Rogue One, spoke with THR about his roller-coaster career, bad-guy typecasting and the two things that terrified him about acting.
How did you hear the news that you’d been nominated for an Emmy?
I was doing a film scene in a prison stall while feces was being rubbed on me, so it was something of a yin and yang moment. I was happy but mostly glad for the guys [creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman] who wrote the character. They made a really interesting dude, and I’m glad I got to play him.
You started acting professionally in Australia at a young age. Was ultimately working in America always the goal?
I didn’t think in those terms. I just wanted to stick around doing shoots. I liked the family aspect of making movies — the intense togetherness of it all. I thought maybe I’d get to do theater or something in Melbourne if I got good at it. Years later, my heroes were [fellow Australians] Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, who came to the U.S., struggled to find work and then eventually made it. Naomi was here for 10 years before she got anything, and that was very inspiring to me.
You’ve played a lot of menacing characters. Were you always sought after for bad-guy roles?
Not always. Because of the early parts I played, people thought of me as lovesick, sensitive, wide-eyed; a sweet, puppyish type. Then, later, I was the funny dude, an Australian everyman. This latest incarnation, which started with Animal Kingdom, is now “the bad guy.” I’ve been around long enough to see the changes.
Before Animal Kingdom, were you worried about your career?
Very much. I had refashioned my expectations considerably. There was a period before Animal Kingdom when it occurred to me that I was going to have to come up with another way to make a living. It was finally time to get “sensible.” I used to tell myself, “You’ve had a great run, but it’s over. You can maybe do TV in Australia, but you can’t spend the rest of your adult life sitting around waiting for a job.”
Mendelsohn (right) with Chandler on ‘Bloodline.’
Animal Kingdom catapulted you into the limelight. How did that feel?
The film was a game-changer. It didn’t change things immediately — for about six months to a year it was pretty quiet — but then it was like popcorn: pop, pop-pop, pop-pop-pop. It was a relief.
When you were offered Bloodline, were you reluctant to do TV?
Not really. TV has gotten really good. I also felt that if it went well, a wider audience would be introduced to my work. I had a meeting with those guys, and they outlined what they had planned for Danny. And then when I found out that they’d gotten Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard? Forget about it!
What was difficult about playing Danny?
The length of the shoot, as well as some of the stuff in the swamps. But Danny himself wasn’t difficult. He was very well written — he’s the greatest sensualist and the least full of bullshit in the family.
People who know you from Bloodline would be shocked to hear your Australian accent. How do you mask it?
When I started out, there were two things I was terrified of: How do you cry and how do you do accents? They were the two areas that used to feel like the north face of the Eiger. Now I have a good dialect guy I work with — Thom Jones — because the alternative is to suck, and that’s not really an alternative, you know?
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